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Is 16mm realistic for a documentary feature???


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#1 Brian Rose

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Posted 16 August 2006 - 02:56 PM

Hello All,
I am in the planning stages for a documentary/investigative film. It would revolve around a drunk driving case that occurred in the my area, and the subsequent trial. I would really like to shoot 16mm. Now, this story has already concluded, which gives me a degree of planning, so I don't end up shooting 200 hours like Barbara Kopple did with "Harlan County, USA." Instead, the film would involve interviews, footage of documents, amd some recreations, akin to "The Thin Blue Line." Of course, even interviews can take up a lot of footage, and so I'm wondering if 16mm would be realistic. Is there any kind of rule of thumb when it comes to planning for how much footage to allot with a documentary project? At this moment in time, I have $10,000 as a baseline, since that is how much I can afford at the moment. Factoring in costs of stock, and processing/telecine, this would enable me to shoot 18,000 ft of film, or approx. 8 hours. In my experience making fiction films, I typically have shot at a 4:1 ratio, which in this case ought to be enough for a 1.5 to 2 hour feature. Of course, documentary is NOT narrative filmmaking, so is this right? Basically, any advice you all might have with regards to shooting a documentary on film would be great. Thanks!
Brian Rose
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#2 Josh Hill

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Posted 16 August 2006 - 03:46 PM

A great tool would be pre-interviewing. You're not going to be able to figure anything out until you figure out the story (even a documentary is a story) you want to tell. Go to all the people invovled or possibly involved (and even some who are not). Interview everyone without a camera (or perhaps while running a video camera like a DVX so that if you NEED to use the footage it won't be too terribly bad) and find out exactly what you want to say. Then go back and reinterview with the film camera.

OR do all of the interviews on video and use the film for the stuff you really can plan (the documents, storyboarded/planned shots).

Personally, I think the pre-interviewing technique would probably be the best. Have the camera to get something spontaneous (if it happens) and you really get to find out who has the stories you wanna use. Then reinterview them. After that, you'll even have a good idea of how long the interview will run (based on the video tapes).
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#3 Dan Horstman

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Posted 16 August 2006 - 03:56 PM

If you do go with film...

Get extra mags. Or get an Aaton XTR with 800 foot mags (they are rare, but they are out there) that way you have as little down time reloading as possible.
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#4 Nate Downes

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Posted 17 August 2006 - 08:48 AM

In addition,another option might be Super8. A bit more awkward to work with, but it does reduce certain costs.

By pre-interviewing and designing the story ahead of time, you truely can deliver a doc on 16mm.
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#5 Brian Dzyak

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Posted 17 August 2006 - 09:09 AM

Hello All,
I am in the planning stages for a documentary/investigative film. It would revolve around a drunk driving case that occurred in the my area, and the subsequent trial. I would really like to shoot 16mm. Now, this story has already concluded, which gives me a degree of planning, so I don't end up shooting 200 hours like Barbara Kopple did with "Harlan County, USA." Instead, the film would involve interviews, footage of documents, amd some recreations, akin to "The Thin Blue Line." Of course, even interviews can take up a lot of footage, and so I'm wondering if 16mm would be realistic. Is there any kind of rule of thumb when it comes to planning for how much footage to allot with a documentary project? At this moment in time, I have $10,000 as a baseline, since that is how much I can afford at the moment. Factoring in costs of stock, and processing/telecine, this would enable me to shoot 18,000 ft of film, or approx. 8 hours. In my experience making fiction films, I typically have shot at a 4:1 ratio, which in this case ought to be enough for a 1.5 to 2 hour feature. Of course, documentary is NOT narrative filmmaking, so is this right? Basically, any advice you all might have with regards to shooting a documentary on film would be great. Thanks!
Brian Rose


Most of what I have shot has been non-narrative. I think that unless you can feed the interviewees exactly what you want them to say, the only way to really get them to open up and say what's on their mind is to shoot a lot. I have no idea how much Errol Morris shot for each interview, but his technique was to keep the camera rolling far beyond the time when others would have cut. That's how he essentially managed to show people for who they really were instead of just going in for the soundbite that got Randall convicted in the first place. I guess that's the problem with non-narrative. If you want honest truth, it doesn't just appear within a few seconds of turning the camera on. It sometimes takes patience, extra side questions, and a lot of footage to find out what's really on someone's mind.

For the book I'm writing on the jobs in the industry, I have my standard list of questions which most everyone answers in the way you might expect. What I've found is that once I've gone through them and just start "talking" (an hour later), THEN I start hearing the answers I came for. I roll MiniDV just for transcribing purposes and it takes an hour for the regular questions and another thirty to sixty minutes as the subject lets loose and just talks. Some people get there sooner and some later. Some never. But to find what I want, I can't keep them in a box just because I have to limit the amount of footage I want to shoot.

I have a friend who shot a big Doc (that aired on PBS a couple seasons ago). I'll try to talk to her today to find out what her ratio was and get back here to share. :)
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#6 Brian Drysdale

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Posted 17 August 2006 - 09:52 AM

An interviewing technique that a couple of producers I worked for used was to do an audio interview and a shoot much shorter film interview. The filmed interview established the interviewee, while the audio material was used as voice over on the action material - the interesting stuff. Getting good interviews tends to eat quite large quantities of film stock, recording an audio interview means you can spend time getting the good material without blowing your budget.

Thinking before you press the button tends to cut down on the shooting ratio. I seem to recall there being a 10 to 1 shooting ratio on these guys' films, which is low for a medium end doc - 18 to 1 wasn't unusual on an average shoot with interviews. Although, some current affairs programmes tried to keep it down to 5 to 1.

Getting the interviewee to say exactly what you want them to say sounds pretty uninspiring stuff. I've been on shoots where they try this and they are the worst interviews.

Interviews tend to be interesting when they say the unexpected. Of course, usually that happens when the camera isn't running. Good research helps avoid this.

Edited by Brian Drysdale, 17 August 2006 - 09:54 AM.

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